Posted on October 04, 2004 in News
By Aaron Venskus
Romaine Patterson, a friend of Matthew Shepard, attended the USM Theater Department’s production of “The Laramie Project” to talk about her friend’s death and the work she’s done since to combat hate crimes in America. Patterson has come out against homophobic lyrics in popular music and spoken throughout the country. She also started a new kind of protest in the wake of Shepard’s death.
Shepard, a homosexual 21-year-old University of Wyoming student, was murdered by Aaron James McKinney and Russell Arthur Henderson on October 12, 1998. The case remains a benchmark in discussions regarding hate crime legislation and the treatment of homosexuals in America.
Patterson has seen over 30 productions of “The Laramie Project,” the play that chronicles Shepard’s death through the eyes of their hometown, Laramie, Wyoming. The September 26 production, produced by the Theater Department was the first production, she said, that moved her to tears.
“This hasn’t happened to me in a while,” a visibly moved Patterson said, wiping away tears. “And I’ve certainly never lost it like this up here in front of everyone. In a couple weeks it will have been six years since Matthew died.”
Patterson downplayed her role in the events surrounding Shepard’s death.
“It was never about me. This production tonight, it is about you. You can all identify with one of the people in Laramie. You all know someone like each of the people portrayed. The story of what happened in Laramie is about this town we’re in tonight.”
Shortly after her friend’s death Patterson, then 21, attended a memorial service in Shepard’s honor at St. Mark’s Church in Casper, Wyoming. Outside of the church was a group of protestors led by Westboro Baptist Church founder Fred Phelps. The protestors held signs that read “God Hates Fags” and “Matthew in Hell.”
Seeing her friend disparaged in this manner motivated Patterson to make her own statement. “I knew that their speech was protected and that there was little the police or community could do to prevent this from happening again at his trial. I contacted one of my friends on campus, the president of the [Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender Association] and suggested we do something, but both of us were short on ideas.”
Her moment of clarity came when she imagined what would comfort her own mother were she in the same situation as Shepard’s mother, Judy Shepard. “I knew that my mother would want to be comforted, to be put at peace. And you’d really have to know Judy Shepard; she’s the nicest little woman. Very motherly.”
Patterson and a group of friends decided to build angel costumes with 10-foot wingspans and surround the protestors outside the courthouse when the trial for McKinney and Henderson began.
“The morning we drove out to Laramie from Denver was Easter morning. I thought there was something neat about that, considering what we were going to do.” Patterson said.
As expected, Phelps stood outside the courthouse with the same array of signs. Patterson and her friends stepped out of the crowds and media that were gathered and encircled the protestors and then turned away from them, facing outward. Patterson smiled, remembering the moment. “At first, everyone was confused. It was chaos. The media was rushing up and asking who we were and what we were doing. We just stood there in silence and finally they got it and everyone got it.” Patterson said. “We were showing the difference between love and hate.”
The counter-protest was dubbed “Angel Action” and today it is used across the world as a means for peaceful demonstration. Patterson parlayed the success of her initial actions into a career of activism.
“The person you saw portrayed in this production tonight was naive and innocent. At that time, I wanted to become a rock star, but Matthew’s death gave me a new direction,” she said. “I still want to become a rock star,” she said with a laugh. “But I guess I’ll have to settle for being a radio star.” Patterson currently hosts a talk show called the “The Derek and Romaine Show” on Sirius Satellite Radio.